Home Trees by Michael Finley WHERE BIRDS FARE WELL
Originally published by the Minnesota Writers Publishing House, 1978 Edited by Charles Waterman Copyright ÂŠ 1992 by Michael Finley. All rights reserved. Published a second time Wednesday, March 30, 1994, for the Excelsior Poetry Meeting Group, Excelsior, Minnesota.
WHERE BIRDS FARE WELL Swallow on telephone lines, Doves in the underbrush, Hawks in ruins and cathedral rafters, Crows on the shoulders of fallen soldiers, Peacocks on staircases, Canaries in the offices of motel managers, Parrots in rich women's kitchens, Whippoorwills sobbing in the branches of trees on long summer nights. Sparrows on rooftops, in hedges and haylofts, Eagles ensconced atop immaculate mountains, Herons in marshes, Swans in canals and in fountains, Skylarks sing into the sun, Owls in cemeteries, And cuckoos in the heads of young men.
NOW THEN Upon completing our educations we planned to be cowboys or at least the sidekicks of ones. Everywhere I went I took pictures with my head. Blackberries by the roadbed. Uncle in the garden. I remember the boardwalk splintering and the mirror in the barber shop breaking and people yelling and jumping into the river. The car had stalled on a hill and started rolling backwards. I smoothed my fringe, and the mountain in the tomato patch grew and grew.
A MELTING POT My mother's father didn't come over on the Titanic. A bad-tempered violent man, he lost his ticket in a pub fight. Or so I am told. He took his coffee with whiskey in it. Once he named a calf after me. Two years later he slaughtered it. I was one of his pallbearers. My father's father was a diabetic most of his life. I remember watching him pinch a skinny shoulder and slipping the needle in. He was sweet by nature. A neighbor's son ran wild with a Model T once and killed my grandfather's favorite riding horse, a saddlebred stallion. Grandpa paid to fix the broken ca. I remember when I was a boy and dropped my toothbrush into the toilet, he picked it out for me and washed it off. I dreamed of him once bursting into a fountain, his life shooting out all the holes he'd made. In 1959 my mother is driving home late from her waittressing job. A stag bolts from the roadside into her beams. That night I hear voices, see a deer hung from an apple tree by the heels. Bread knife in hand, I see my father make the downward incision. The great heart tumbles onto the fallen fruit. My father and mother's first baby was sick, and the two stayed together until she died. My mother went a little mad, in advance of the loss. My father went out, for a drink, or a dance. Sometimes he came home drunk and the two of them shouted. One time he hit her, and I hugged her leg on a bunched up carpet and cried. My father told my mother that her mother was an imbecile, but that is not how I remember her. I see my grandmother's hands zipping open pale skin, and with
one hand pulling the unborn egg into the light. Inside the hen the shell was still soft. On television men are spading up other men from a California peach orchard. My mother says my uncle John was one of the dead, he had left home and lost touch. Two thousand miles away my father stirs his ice. He is looking at album with women and girls in it. Their names are Grace and Ruth and Rose and Mary. more beautiful than any I have seen, the way the light and shadow plays on their faces, the rosy cheek turned bronze, their hopes and smiles, gone into time. Someone ought to tell the story, says my father. Somehow it ought to be all gotten down. A dozen families flee from famine to drought and depression to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The branches of the trees intertwine in the pure product of our broken household, the girl upstairs, coughing in her sleep, the woman fretting to put things right, the man slipping through the boards like spilled water. My mother's father, deep into Michigan, who married old and knew no more about Jesus than his druid roots, beats his daughters and sets them howling. Deep into summer they hack the milkweeds, head upon head. Something happened, I don't know what. My mother grew up anxious, as if she had a long head start on the sick child inside her. My father's mother is on a nursing home bed in Milwaukee with a stroke. She is 85, I am 24. When she sees me, she thinks I am my cousin, my uncle, my father. How are my children? The poor sick girl? The boy who went away to seminary? In my grandmother's
heart I live freely and all at once through four and five generations. My cousins drive me to my motel room. They talk about senility, psychosis, the stroke. I half listen. My grandmother is right in ways I will have trouble remembering. We swirl together in a pot of blood, bodies passing through one another, forward, backward into time. I will not see her alive again.
Rachel the Student In the lab there was a cat. Its head was shaved bare, and sticking out of a wad of putty was a wire. When the cat saw Rachel come in, it jumped. But it didn't land on all fours, as most cats do. It hit a cabinet drawer and fell on its side. And Rachel wants to know what good is a cat like that. Every day she bikes by the cancer hospital, chain grease blackening her pant legs. Today she looked and a face in a window was looking out at her, then pulled the drapes shut. A big exam is on the way and she's missed her period and her neighbor upstairs plays the saxophone late at night, and nothing she says makes any difference. I don't understand it, she starts crying one day, why do people want to be mothers.
THE CLARINET IS A DIFFICULT INSTRUMENT I was eating minestrone when I heard something fall outside my apartment window. Too dark to see much but a pair of hairy arms slam shut a window on the third floor of the building opposite mine. In the morning all I found was a bent clarinet on cement, dented horn and pawn shop sticker saying nine dollars. It reminded me of the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. He too had dreams, set sail up the St. Lawrence, looking for China, and wound up settling in Detroit instead.
NOT FAR FROM THE BEACH AT PLUM ISLAND Here the ocean makes its ocean-sound, like the roar of a freight train pounding through the night. My friend Dirk calls such analogies blasphemy. Oceans and trains are not the same. One is the original and it deserves credit -why point to helicopters while dragonflies flit quietly by? History talks about the boatloads of people who crisscrossed the waters, no mention of all the other debris. Dear friends, who wouldn't want to live in Dirkâ€™s world original and clean, honest and pure -set sail on the sturdiest twig at hand? Instead I brush the sand from my pants. On the ground is one of those plastic collars six-packs of beer come in, and strangle seagulls -I stuff it in my pocket and head for the car.
PERSPECTIVE There are no fields between the plane and the ground below. The farmlands look like Band-Aids, and the little car On the long skinny highway down there looks foolproof As a bead on an abacus wire, undeviating as a button on a thread. Actually, someone full-sized is inside, and he has to steer Or he'll go in the ditch. He could hit his head. Or worse, miss his appointment in a room up ahead in one of the buildings alongside the road.
MESCAL MAKES STEAMBOAT RUN WITH THE DOGS Yanked off the porch, I follow the pack to the high fields, leaping over fallen trees, splashing through ditches, fur catching brambles. Four feet times six dogs spin across gravel, and me on two legs behind. Razor, the sloe-eyed coyote, falls back from the others to counsel me: Speed it up, will you, you'll make us all late. Up hills, down hills, vaulting gullies, alongside rims of cottonwood groves, brown ribs flare open, then close. The air frosts up, pink gums flail the cornstalk rows. We come to a resting place atop a dry terrace, chins on our forearms. First the wind paws our hairs, then sleep. Except Razor doesn't sleep, and neither does Snakeface. Snarling, insults, teeth.
I stand with a stick, I say, "Stop!" Only Razor looks in my face sand says No, you stop. Everyone agrees, takes off downhill, leaving me standing upright.
THREE DOGS The dog marooned on the expressway island is trying to make the most of his one remaining advantage, being alive. No way to an exit ramp, it's rush hour, dusk, he's tired of standing still Three-legged dog hops from the gate to the door then back to the gate The dog on the carpet is twitching her way through the usual dream. She's running through cattails and thickets and swamp, and the fox she is almost on top of escapes. She circles her own scent, aware that somewhere behind her and watching and laughing the two brown beads.
ACCIDENT This coffee cup broken on the floor will never be whole again. Such a small thing, still all this pain in your eyes. Tell me, how can I make it right? Before I met you I was hollow, too, and every little tap resounded for hours. Now see how easy I shrug off disaster. You are my coffee. I stir, I cool you with my breath.
HOME TREES My hometown was Amherst, Ohio. Ham, little town, hurst, in the woods. It was a quarry town. "Amherst, Sandstone Center of the World." When the quarries were young, trees grew high and thin from their floors. Twenty years later, the quarries are deep with spring and rainwater. What's left of the tree trunks are all rotten now. And still the water trickles upwards. When I was little I would walk the Lake Erie bluffs with my friends, and the bushes beside me came up to my shoulders. Twenty years later, I'm smaller than ever, the bushes are trees, and I'm thrown in their shadows. When my mother remarried, we moved to nearby Vermilion,"Named for the Red Clay Used by Indians to Make Pots." My stepfather Dick's dad had bought land there, planted poplar trees alongside the creek bank, the site of the home we would build years later.
The poplar is favored for its rapid growth, grows straight and tall, makes an excellent windbreak, and in summer its leaves turn upward and shimmer like dimes. They don't live long. Twenty years later they are all chopped down and taking their place beside the house is the languorous sweep of a willow tree's arms. Dick says the arms are too heavy, may break off in a thunderstorm, crash through the roof, so he's making plans to chainsaw it down in the summer or fall. Rachel and I made a trip that year to Amherst and Vermilion, and I showed her the house I grew up in. Back then there were dozens of cherry trees, apples trees, peach trees. The orchards are gone now, their places are taken by split level homes of middle managers at the Ford Plant in nearby Lorain, "Best Location in the Nation." And Rachel and I find a place on the bluffs to make love
and nap in the shade of two telephone poles.
DRY WASH The natives of this place know something about dirt, about skin, can recognize the different cries of animals in the hills. Sometimes I think they dream us up, and we are the death they invented for themselves and ruffle about themselves when they sleep. At night the trout are in the brook in the unrippled, unflashing waters. A paper box careens down the wash like a ghost. In the dream I am dreaming is a seed, anxious for the first slow tickle of rain.
IN PRAISE OF GRANITE "My incense rises heavenward to thee" -- Inscribed on Thoreau's chimney The beer cans say they've been at it all summer, The high school kids, parked on land that isn't their own, Getting high and sliding their fingers in and out Of one another's underpants. Forty-eight years ago three bank robbers took This quarry road, smashed through that gate, And planted two sticks of dynamite under the safe That lies in a heap this fine spring day Like a four-legged corpse with a horrible wound. Back in Cambridge, Ray looks at the picture For the thousandth time, a Chinese print of a dragonfly Lighting on a bamboo frond; it's almost invisible. A few blocks away, I'm sitting on a granite curb In front of an Episcopal abbey. Someone is behind me, a monk with Japanese eyes. Do you want to make a meditation, he asks. In Concord, several kids have fun Breaking bottles on the one stone left from the shed On Walden Pond, dense granite it was. Lying on our backs in the rear of Dirk's pick-up,
Ray and I watch as the wires loop from pole to pole, The sudden explosions of treetops above us.
THE AUDIENCE Sometimes I played out in back of the meat mart, hoping maybe the Polanskys would see me, let me into the pool, let me ride the horses, or let me watch Steve's go-kart. One day I opened a drum by the rendering plant. Inside were the eyes of a hundred head of cattle, some looking this way, some looking that, and that, and that, and that, and that, each one the size of my fist. Today Steve Polansky still works at the meat mart. He and his brothers run it now, hauling the sides of animals on hooks up and down the sawdust floors. But with me it was different. I am an actress, and I live for my audience.
IN THE CORNER PANEL OF THE SAINTS CONSTANTINA AND ANNE The first thing that always goes out are the lights. Smothered by bells, they cry out, then go out. The next things that go are the sleepers. Look at the woman who dreamed of white lights while the town she grew up in is burning behind her. Crazy, she knows she is in the wrong picture, using up space, in the way. Why did it happen? Who lit the fire? The whole town collapses like a scorpion dancing, then touching its tail to its lips. The moon is delighted, is yellow as pee, steps forward and backward in the flickering shadows. The crackling houses bloom into the flower of fire.
HAPPINESS When someone is next to the person she loves, the water in her cells laps at its thousands of beaches, pebbles and rocks and sharp discs of light breathe from the pores of her cheeks. A whirlpool springs from a cloud to the west, by a island nesting in a happy sea, a sparrow hawk flies off toward a bank of violet mountains. It lights on a limb of a tall green tree, the stars alight in her branches.
MY GUN SHOOTS BLACK HOLES "If we can travel indefinitely outward from a given point, we also travel infinitely into that point, never reaching center." - Rutherford Imagine a bullet that swallows its gun that sucks up assassins and targets at will: the more it absorbs, the smaller it gets. Trees shoot into the bullet, streets tear free from their beds and jump into it, thunderheads condense and pour into the bullet, and the bullet shrinks down to the dot of an eye. Finally the whole planet is clawing its way into this particle of dust and the flaps of the universe come undone and fly into the thing that is now so small that everything's died and gone
into it. It moves in trillions now. Nonillions now. Quindecillions. Vigintillions. And life goes on under our red roof with no one the wiser. I ask for the horseradish. You pass it my way. And we look at one another, traveling.
SHAME It's shameful seeing fields I can't identify. It's ice, or something, a tangle that affects me. I see zinnias and fall flowers with chew-marks of frost on them, a white mat of fur that I lay on and stroked with one hand. I noticed it first on a window frosted over, and later a figure on a patch of linoleum, and later out of a hatch in my eye where a while ago a painting had been: there were haystacks and sheep in it, and the distant figures of men caught in the motion of lifting something long. I can tell by the quiet it must be winter. And how it affects me, I want to write everyone I know, or have them come visit me.
SINCE SHE DIED I am in a restaurant unwrapping a napkin when for no reason the people stop sipping coffee, become monster babies from a monograph of freaks cyclops baby, girl with no brain, hour-old faces that didn't quite make it, dry eyes crossed with expectation of death. I wish I could salve this feeling like I butter a roll, but bitterness is not a face you make its roots punch through you and tangle the heart. Families are joined together like paper dolls, then pulled apart at the arms, and the rest of the village, well-issued and well-nourished with all the right parts in all the right places peruse their menus
like passengers on a train, their eyes on the scenery ride innocently over the rust-red tracks.
MY BICYCLE I set aside this perfect day to be with my bicycle. Beautifully red, she's been mine for three years. I have just bought a pair of blue handlegrips.
Now for our free pirouettes in the sun. There is no joy like this one. Down a smooth hill and into the wind, the low sound of whistling in her spokes -- I close my eyes and trace a shiver down my spine.
Now we rest in the shade of a tree, and my lovely bicycle, anxious to please me, guides herself in small circles.
Here, the figure eight. Here, quick brakes! I'm so proud, I applaud, and my bicycle wheels sheepishly toward me, sets her handlebar in my lap.
I stroke her saddle, I murmur kind words. When she stands before me, her chain sags irresistibly, her bearings rattle deep in her hind parts.
I mount her, and we ride.
Published on Mar 22, 2011
reprint of a chapbook from Minnesota Writers Publishing House, 1978. A breakthrough in terms of discipline and focus. I was starting to mean...